Category Archives: Education

Developing Gardens

School Gardens in the Developing World

School garden, South Africa (Hodge flickr/Creative Commons)

While the focus of my research has been on school gardens in cities in the United States, there has also been a movement in the last few decades to establish gardens in developing countries. These international school gardens offer many of the same benefits as urban gardens do – they provide fresh fruits and vegetables to students, they teach kids and their parents about sustainable farming, and they can enhance academic education. This blog will spotlight several organizations doing exceptional work building school and community gardens in the developing world.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Special Programme for Food Security published the “School Gardens Concept Note” in 2004, which outlines the benefits of school gardens. The FAO also created a manual for teachers, parents, and communities, Setting up and running a school garden, which provides simple yet comprehensive instructions as to how to start a garden. Most recently, in 2010, the FAO published A New Deal for School Gardens, suggesting what governments and other organizations can do to promote school gardens, including curriculum ideas for the incorporation of garden learning into schools. These resources are incredibly helpful for volunteers and community members looking to start school gardens in developing regions. In addition to informational resources, FAO also provides grants to organizations, especially through the TeleFood initiative, which provides money for small-scale farmers.

Slash and Burn Farming, Belize (Resa, flickr/Creative Commons)

Plenty International is a non-profit organization created to support economic self-sufficiency and environmental responsibility in Central America, the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa. In Belize, they have started GATE, Garden Based Agriculture for Toledo’s Environment. Toledo is the southern most region of Belize, and its economy relies heavily on agriculture. GATE “aims to create a replicable model of local sustainable livelihood and environmental benefit based on organic school gardens”. Most of the rural populations use slash and burn style agriculture (to produce crops such as corn, rice, and beans) which uses five more times the land space than traditional gardens. GATE creates model gardens that demonstrate the benefits of organic gardens and sustainable agriculture. The program also seeks to decrease malnutrition by providing access to local, nutrition foods, and by providing healthy lunches and snacks for students in the schools that they work at. Mrs. Joan Palma, principal of the San Felipe School said, “Since the start of the program we have seen great changes in the academic performances of children. We have also observed behavior changes in having a positive attitude about school. The level of absenteeism has decreased. This program really has had a positive impact on the lives of our children in this small community.”

Seeds for Africa operates in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Malawi. The organization provides seeds, plants, trees, and equipment to elementary schools and community groups to help them establish gardens. All of the seeds provided come from Africa, which keeps the plants native and provides business for local farmers. Students are integrated into the process of building and maintaining the gardens planted using these seeds, which helps them learn about environmental sustainability. Like Plenty International, the gardens provide schools with fresh fruits and vegetables for student lunches. Surplus food is given to the families or sold to raise money for the school.

Students planting trees in Kenay (www.seedsforafrica.org)

Students planting trees in Kenya (www.seedsforafrica.org)

Action Aid aims to end the cycle of poverty by making systematic changes to countries and communities in order to help end hunger and poverty. One such change is the creation of a school garden in Nsanje, Malawi. Due to climate change, floods and droughts are getting worse in Nsanje, causing crops to fail. Action Aid has set up gardens in four different elementary schools to provide nutritious meals for students. The gardens also have the benefit of protecting against flooding – over 400 fruit trees and 3,000 tree seedlings have been planted in the gardens. These trees will offer protection against future flooding by providing a barrier that will hopefully reduce damage to buildings. The garden project has also attracted better teachers to the schools and caused an increase in the number of girls attending school.

As the benefits of school gardens continue to be elucidated in urban schools, they also continue to become clear in the developing world. Gardens have the potential to impact many aspects of every day life, and it is my hope that these garden projects will continue to grow and thrive as they work to end the cycle of poverty.

Organizational Organization: Approaches to Addressing Conflict Minerals

While there are many organizations that take on environmental and human rights causes, it is important to understand their unique approaches and how they can translate into action in the field of conflict minerals.

There is a wide array of rights organizations that take on the topic of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, each one has its own unique history and raison d’être. It is important to take a step back in order to truly understand the different approaches and structures of such organizations active in the field.

A previous blog post titled, “Campaigning for Conflict-Free Campuses” highlights the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) developed by the organization Enough Project. CFCI encourages college students “to build the consumer voice for conflict-free electronics, such as cell phones, laptops, and other devices that will not finance war in eastern Congo.” Though this approach appears to be quite effective, it is important to note that not every organization seeks to work with students. Others focus their efforts solely on government lobbying and ground research.

As defined in an e-mail by David Spett, Enough Project Administrative & Operations Manager, the organization was founded in 2007 “on the belief that policy ideas are only as good as policymakers’ willingness to adopt them,” thereby emphasizing the governmental lobbying component of Enough. Enough Project focuses on such American policy advancement—for it is a division of the Center for American Progress; however, it also focuses on mobilizing American citizens. Spett continued, “We aim to combine the policy expertise of a think tank with the public mobilization of an advocacy organization. Our work with college students is very much in line with these core goals, as young people are some of the smartest and most effective activists around.”

Enough Project consciously views college students as an extension of their efforts. By motivating students to act on campuses across the country, they are tapping into already established communities; the organization enables these students to project their voices to a large audience of peers on campus. Whether through social media outlets, campus newspapers, or school-based e-mail lists, hundreds of students can read about conflict minerals in a short period of time. Enough Project utilizes such resources, thereby rapidly expanding its networks.

"After a screening of the documentary, 'The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,' Gayle Smith, Enough's Co-founder John Prendergast, actress Robin Wright Penn, and others, discuss the film's issues." Photo and Caption Courtesy of ENOUGH Project / Flickr Creative Commons

Enough Project addresses the Congolese conflict mineral campaign specifically through its Raise Hope for Congo campaign. This campaign seeks to “fundamentally change the equation for Congo by using The Enough Project’s robust field research, advocacy, and communications to bolster a broad grassroots movement that promotes lasting solutions. [Their] initiatives work to educate and empower individuals to be a part of these solutions to the conflict.” The latter component is an important one to note. While other organizations focus on ground research and advocacy as well, some specifically steer clear of the student empowerment approach.

Jewish World Watch (JWW) is an organization based in Los Angeles that has a very different founding than Enough Project. It was co-founded in 2004 by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Janice Kamenir-Reznik as the “Jewish response to genocide in Darfur.” After the holocaust, many Jews wondered why more people had not stepped forward to try to end that genocide. With this history in mind, the evident question remains: how could the Jewish people now stand idly by while other genocides take place? In reaction to this question, Rabbi Schulweis and Kamenir-Reznick decided they must act, which sparked their decision to create JWW. The organization’s model was to rally synagogues to act as members of the organization. Each synagogue would help educate their communities and encourage their congregants to take action. Since its founding, JWW has expanded a great deal. It “has grown from a collection of Southern California synagogues into a global coalition that includes schools, churches, individuals, communities and partner organizations that share a vision of a world without genocide.”

JWW takes action by partnering with other organizations based locally in the specified region of conflict in order “to develop high-impact projects that improve the lives of survivors and help build the foundation for a safer world,” in addition to “[inspire]…communities to support tangible projects and advocate for political change.” JWW’s local partnerships allow it to specifically meet the needs of those individuals in the conflict area and ensure funding successfully reaches them. While JWW originally just focused on the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, the organization has since expanded to also address the violence and injustice in the Democratic Republic of Congo surrounding conflict minerals.

Through six partnerships with projects in the Congo, JWW raises funds to address a wide variety issues that impact Congolese men and women as a result of rape and violence. These projects include vocational training for women who have been victims of sexual violence; maternal care and agricultural development for women involved in sustainable agriculture; and burn treatment for Congolese victims of war. JWW also addresses matters in the Congo through their education programs and international advocacy campaigns. JWW runs the Activist Certification and Training program for middle, high, and religious school students in the United States to help involve them in activism at a young age.

Though Enough Project and Jewish World Watch have very different organizational histories and projects, one distinct commonality is that student groups are viewed as holding the potential to bring about immense change. Though these organizations both have effective approaches, there remain several other ways of structuring human rights and environmental organizations. For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Global Witness (GW) have developed very different models.

Human Rights Watch’s “rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse.” Through on-the-ground, original research, HRW exposes violations of human rights abuses all around the world. The organization uses this research to create in-depth reports that describe the events, responses, and reactions of these violations and abuses. Such reports are used as evidence with which to publicly expose the perpetrators through targeted media efforts. Through this work, HRW seeks to “tenaciously…lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.”

"Jasmine Herlt, Director, Human Rights Watch Canada speaks prior to the screening of 'Last Train Home', this year's opening night film." Caption Courtesy of humanrightsfilmfestival / Flickr Creative Commons and Photo Courtesy of Jacquie Labatt, Jacquie Labatt Photography / Flickr Creative Commons

Rather than rally individuals or students, HRW focuses on systematic governmental change through exposure of violations, as well as on holding perpetrators responsible through international pressure and the challenging of governments. Because of HRW’s local researchers and country experts, the information they have published regarding the Congo is precise and up-to-date.

Global Witness (GW), a British organization that focuses on environmental exploitation, is another rights organization that has a similar model to that of HRW; however, one of GW’s main focuses is on the exploitation of natural resources, as it relates to corruption, conflict, accountability, and the environment—whereas HRW focuses on human rights abuses whether or not they are caused by such utilization of such resources. GW’s “[i]nternational campaigns operate at the nexus of development, the environment and trade. [They] are motivated by a desire to tackle the underlying causes of conflict and poverty and to end the impunity of individuals, companies and governments that exploit natural resources for their own benefit at the expense of their people and the environment.” Therefore, the topic of conflict minerals fits well into their mission, for such minerals are fueling violence and acute injustices; GW’s documentation of the matter fits well within its described area of involvement.

In terms of GW’s strategy, it appears to focus more on interaction with decision makers than with public pressure campaigns, for their unique selling proposition does not center on rallying up large groups of students. Thus, it is evident that organizations like GW and HRW differ from Jewish World Watch and Enough Project, which utilize students as main agents for advocacy work and to gaining support for a cause. That said, each of these four organizations does incorporate legislative lobbying into its work. Each values the need to communicate with government officials and policy makers—whether within the conflict country or abroad—in order to accomplish their missions and bring about change. Though they all take on the task of trying to diminish violence in Congo as a result of mineral exploitation, they each delve into and address the conflict in a unique way. This serves to diversify efforts and the way in which they address the many different components of the issue. In such a complex matter, it is important to see global, multifaceted endeavors working to address the negative outcome of mineral exploitation.

Publicizing Complexity: Methods of Communicating a Multifaceted Conflict

A cause as complex as conflict minerals in the Congo requires many types of action, from both activists and governments, in order to create stability and peace. Institutions and individuals alike are being faced with the challenge of how to best communicate such a multifaceted matter.

In an era in which there are seemingly unlimited resources available on the Internet, it is easy to become overwhelmed by such an influx of stimuli. It is easy to feel that no matter how much you read there is always more information available. Therefore, it is important for those individuals who publish articles, photos, or videos on the web to present a clear and concise message that is all the while comprehensive and detailed.

This need for balance is one that environmental and human rights activists face everyday. How can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention as well as keep him or her engaged?

This question is one worth exploring, for the effectiveness of an advertising or marketing campaign can determine whether that cause gains advocates or creates critics instead. The Los Angeles-based human rights organization Jewish World Watch has a unique approach that is effectively parceled into three different areas: education, advocacy, and refugee relief. Their Activism Certification and Training (ACT) program for high school students helps develop activism on high school campuses by focusing on these areas one at a time. By doing so, students understand the importance of each distinct area, as well as the important chronology of these three components; you cannot advocate for a cause without being educated on the matter first, and you cannot raise funds for refugees—or for any others in need—without first advocating for why someone ought to support the cause.

This three-pronged approach, however, can get lost when trying to communicate with the general public outside of a formal program like the ACT program. Thus we return to the above question: how can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention and keep him or her engaged?

Richard Downie, Deputy Director and Fellow of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. proposed in an interview that the best approach is to “do your best to come out with [a] clear, concise balance…having maximum impact while also protecting the truth of what is actually happening and making sure you are not misleading people.” CSIS a non-profit organization that “provides strategic insights and bipartisan policy solutions to decision makers in government, international institutions, the private sector, and civil society.”

A "mashup" of images an individual made "after reading about the Conflict Minerals used by Nokia, Apple, Intel and many others. Which feeds the current conflict in the Congo and makes use of gang rape as a weapon in this conflict." Photo and Caption Courtesy of Daniel Crompton / Flickr Creative Commons

While Downie’s approach appears to be ideal, unfortunately it is often not utilized. For example, one tactic that counters this evenhanded and comprehensive approach is to use extremes to catch attentions. The photo to the right, for example, was created by an individual on Flickr—“almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world.” This creation combines a violent image of a rape surrounded by the Nokia logo and slogan, thereby seeking to directly connect Nokia’s purchase of conflict minerals to the rapes occurring in the Congo. The use of such a violent image produces a strong and direct message: Nokia products cause rape. As discussed in previous blog posts, such a message is certainly an exaggeration of the truth. Downie commented on polarizing advertising that uses this message saying, “Making a direct link between making phone calls on your mobile phone and impacting the conflict is a gross oversimplification.”

Because the image above portrays such a one-sided point of view, if that is the first exposure a viewer has to the topic of conflict minerals in the DRC, that individual will likely form an immediate opinion. This is unfortunate because it is misleading and does not convey the full picture. This photo does not address the fact that Nokia has taken a certain degree of initiative, as early as 2001, to try and prevent their funds from landing in the hands of ruthless militiamen in eastern Congo. It is often true that people or organizations have particular agendas they are trying accomplish. It ought to be recognized, however, that in the case of human rights campaigns, it is much more effective to keep each party involved—even the industry or entities that need improvement—so that each one can work effectively together to find a solution.

The Enough Project takes a less dramatic approach in its media. Even though the organization has also taken the approach of victimizing electronics companies, Enough Project also proposes tangible methods to try and remedy this situation. One way in which it does so is through the video below called, “I’m a Mac … and I’ve Got a Dirty Secret”—which imitates the style of the Mac commercials that sought to prove their computers were more user friendly and entertainment-focused than PCs. The video not only points out what it believes is the harmful actions committed by electronics companies that purchase minerals from conflict mines, it also asks consumers to take action by demanding electronics companies clean up their mineral supply chains.

Joel Pruce, Lecturer in International Human Rights at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at University of Denver, commented in an interview on this type of approach used in the above Enough Project video. He explains that “the strategy is to [leverage] power of average citizens when it comes to buying power…” of electronics.  He acknowledges the effectiveness of such advertising; it first captures the viewer’s attention first because of the human rights abuses it describes and then because it provides tangible action steps for consumers to take.

A New York Times audio slideshow called “A Scramble for Tin in Congo,” seen here, contains images captured by Johan Spanner and narration by Lydia Polgreen. Its approach is to be very thorough in communicating what is involved locally in Congo in the conflict minerals trade; rather than incorporate an advocacy message, it focuses on educating by providing raw facts. It documents the full process of first reaching the mines from main roads, then extracting the minerals, and finally exporting them. It does not provide the viewer or electronics consumer with concrete actions to take as a result of this provided information. However, it seeks to honestly portray the situation on the ground in the Congo. While—like in any form of communication—there could certainly be some distortion of truth, the photo evidence provided seems to bring the audio slideshow greater legitimacy.

One step beyond this video in the direction of full disclosure of the conflict is an investigative report by CBS’s 60 Minutes, seen here. It provides historical analysis, documents activism of organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Enough Project, contains firsthand interview evidence, and even goes so far as to expose the Congolese government’s involvement in actually fueling the violence. While this video serves as an educational tool and does not suggest a specific course of action for the consumer, it does convey that the above two organizations are acting and involved in the cause. Therefore, if inspired to take action after watching this report, viewers and consumers could certainly become involved with one of these two organizations.

Even as seen in the few media examples provided above, there is a wide range of methods for exposing environmental and human exploitation. Advertising and communication tactics can be polarizing, can call people to action, or can be purely educational. While in depth, historical documentation is preferred for the sake of accuracy, advocacy groups and media outlets still face the challenge of how to capture attentions quickly—since there is not often the opportunity to produce a thirteen-minutes video to fully explain a conflict, as does the 60 Minutes video—without doing so in an entirely shocking or polarizing manner. How can one article, one video, or one photo both capture a reader’s attention as well as keep him or her engaged? Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that one source might not—and so often does not—portray an entirely evenhanded and comprehensive view of the conflict minerals conflict. It is important for each person to carry out his or her own due diligence; read or view multiple sources in order to determine the truth of the matter, as well as what tangible actions can truly make a positive impact on the cause at hand.

Bringing Gardens into the 21st Century

Greenhouses that Create an Exciting Mixture of Technology and Nature

When I imagine a garden, I think of a small plot of land strewn with tools and covered with soil. I think of getting my hands dirty in a place that is a refuge from my normal life filled with computers and technology. One organization, however, does not see gardens this way. Instead, they see the opportunity to integrate new technological methods into age old gardening techniques.

New York Sun Works promotes urban sustainability through science education. Their initial project was The Science Barge, an urban sustainable farm that grows farm using only alternative energies. Its goal is to educate the public about issues of sustainability and inspire people to think about more efficient ways to use energy, especially in the city. Since 2007, over 3000 New York City students have visited the barge. The video below shows the work that the science barge does.

The Science Barge in Yonkers, NY, AIDG Flickr/Creative Commons

The Science Barge is currently owned by Groundwork Hudson Valley and is located in Yonkers, NY, while New York Sun Works has moved on to something new: The Greenhouse Project. The Greenhouse Project is an initiative to teach students about health and nutrition through the construction of hydroponic greenhouse labs. The greenhouses constructed by New York Sun Works house the newest technologies in sustainable urban agriculture, including rainwater harvesting systems, solar panels, compost stations, vertical vine crop systems, aquaponics systems, and more.

The first greenhouse was built at the Manhattan School for Children. MSC is a public school on the Upper West Side started by several parents in the neighborhood.  In keeping with the tradition of parent involvement, the Greenhouse Project at MSC was started by a small group of parents who were inspired by the Science Barge. The 1,420 square foot greenhouse grows about 8,000 pounds of produce a year, including cucumbers, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash. The vegetables are grown through a hydroponic system, which does not require soil and uses less water than traditional growing methods. Instead of pesticides, the greenhouse uses insects such as ladybugs to protect plants from pests. The greenhouse functions as both a classroom and a garden. When I first walked into the garden, I immediately saw two large rain-water collection barrels, hundreds of plants, and a large tank full of water in the center of the room. When I looked more closely, however, I also noticed a Smart board, desks and chairs, and student made posters and artwork throughout the greenhouse.

Rain-water harvesting tank at the Manhattan School for Children

Shakira Castronovo, the elementary school science teacher at MSC became the garden and nutrition teacher as soon as the greenhouse was built. While she was not as involved as the parents in building the facility, she says it was always assumed that she would take over the curriculum instruction surrounding the greenhouse once it was built. And that she did – she currently is responsible for the care of the greenhouse, as well as teaching science to students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Castronovo uses the NYC science curriculum standards and attempts to teach each standard through work in the greenhouse. For example, one of the kindergarten standards is making observations about properties. The students are learning this skill by observing the different types of herbs growing in the garden. The fifth grade, on the other hand, uses the aquaponics tank, which contains fish, insects, and plants, to learn about ecosystems.

Castronovo has noticed that the greenhouse creates excitement about science. Last week, a young student said to her, “I can’t wait for Thursday!” When Ms. Castronovo asked her why Thursday was a special day, she responded, “I have greenhouse on Thursday!”.  Castronovo adds that the greenhouse has a different attraction than an ordinary school garden. “The students are drawn to the mixture of nature and technology,” she said. “They are fascinated by the 21st century technologies, but at the same time, they like being in nature and examining plants and animals.”

Unlike many other school gardens that aim to grow food for the cafeteria, the Ms. Castronovo prefers that students eat the vegetables they harvest in the school garden, rather than sending them to the cafeteria. In the cafeteria, she says, it is harder to see the connection between the plants that they grew and the food they are eating. In the greenhouse, however, harvesting and eating vegetables is all a part of the cycle that the students are learning about. If a student wants to eat a piece of kale, for example, they harvest the kale plant. They must then go over to the “nursery”, where younger plants are growing, and pick a new plant to replace the kale that they just harvested. The student then picks a seedling and moves it to the nursery, to replace the plant that they just removed. Through this process, students are intricately connected to the process of growing and eating food.

New York Sun Works aims to build 100 similar rooftop greenhouses at schools in New York. While Ms. Castronovo believes that the construction of the actual facilities is a reasonable goal, she adds that it is unrealistic to find a teacher like her – a teacher who oversees the functioning of the greenhouse as well as creates and teaches a greenhouse curriculum to students. Ms. Castronovo is constantly overwhelmed by the amount of work that she has to do, ranging from preparing a lesson, to grading homework, to fixing leaky pipes in the greenhouse. Still, she truly believes in the educational power of the greenhouse. She remembers a student who, before she started learning in the greenhouse, wasn’t particularly passionate about anything. Now, she wants to be a scientist. “I hope that my students remember some of the content I teach,” Castronovo says, “but even if they don’t, if I can help encourage that love of science in kids, then I have done my job.”

MSC Greenhouse (http://nysunworks.org/thegreenhouseproject)

Inspired Activism

For this week’s post, I am going to stray a bit from the structure of my first  few blog-posts. This change was inspired by a conversation that I had with another student who uses poetry and painting to express her passion for the environment.

Pen and Paper. Photo Courtesy of LucastheExperience/Flickr.

She recently learned about the impact of climate change on coral reefs, and decided to take pen to hand, and write about her feelings on the subject.  Merav is a student and new-found coral reef enthusiast who is eager to put her artistic talent to work, in order to make others aware of the threats to survival that coral reefs face.

In light of this, this post will discuss the different ways in which young people channel their passion for coral reefs in order to make others aware of the threats that reefs face.  The methods that they use are sometimes conventional, but often unconventional.  All are equally important, and all have the ability to bring coral reefs to the attention of a broader audience. From Merav and other inspiring individuals, I have learned that environmental activism comes in many forms: the written, the spoken, the painted, and the danced, just to name a few.

Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of stitchlily/Flickr. The hyperbolic crocheted coral reef project began as an initiative of two sisters to raise awareness about coral reefs. It uses math, science, and art to create crocheted reefs. It is one of the largest community-based art projects in the world (http://crochetcoralreef.org/about/index.php)

The crocheted reef above is an example of an art-based project that raises awareness about coral reefs.  It is my belief, and my hope, that projects like this will enable the artists to engage the public in discourse about the threats that coral reefs face, and will inspire others to action.

Environmental activism also comes in more conventional forms; forms that are based in scientific education. I spoke with Jessica Pretty, a student of oceanography at Old Dominion University, a SCUBA diver, and an activist for coral reef preservation.  She has been an avid SCUBA diver for many years, and this has contributed to her love of coral reefs.  She sees education as a central component to environmental activism.  For this reason, she decided to get a degree in Oceanography.  She explained the link between her education and her desire to protect coral reefs.

Jessica said, “Coral reefs were some of the first things I got to explore whilst scuba diving. I was inspired to follow the dream of [studying] Marine Science/Oceanography when I realized how our oceans and the life they contain are taken for granted by the human race…the oceans have always given us plenty, but now they are in danger of being decimated by the greed of humanity and I would like to change that.”

By educating herself in a formal environment, Jessica will gain the scientific tools that she needs to work to save the marine environments that she loves.  Her education in Oceanography has given her a broader knowledge of the threats that coral reefs face, as well as a better understanding of why coral reefs are so important.  This in turn, has caused her to advocate for their protection.

Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of USFWS Pacific/Flickr.

Dylan Vicchione, founder of the organization ReefQuest, proves that ability to act on behalf of coral reefs (or any environmental cause) is not limited by one’s age.  At the age of 12 he founded an NGO, ReefQuest.  He has been honored by the President for his efforts, and has created educational materials that thousands of other students have used to learn to protect coral reefs. Dylan is a prime example of a young person who is taking initiative to save coral reefs.  Young people like him have the power to change the world and to inspire other young people to do the same.  The video below tells his inspiring story!

[vimeo]

ReefQuest Promo from IDEAS Quest on Vimeo.

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Painting the White House Green

The White House Kitchen Garden (Lelkund/Flickr Creative Commons)

An Educational Garden in the Most Famous Residence in Country

While many school and community gardens are created in playgrounds, on roofs, and in abandoned lots, today we will be visiting a garden that is most definitely not planted on a vacant property. The White House Kitchen Garden is instead located on the beautifully manicured lawns of the most well known residence in the country. The garden, visible to the general public passing by the White House, is located on the South Lawn. Over the past two years, it has become a symbol of health and sustainability, championing Michelle Obama’s cause of ending childhood obesity.

Despite the enormous popularity of the White House Kitchen Garden, the beautifully kept garden on the south lawn has not always been there. Throughout White House history, there have been various attempts to build and maintain a garden, but one of the only full functioning gardens was Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden. The victory garden was planted during World War II in an attempt to encourage others to do the same in order to alleviate food shortages produced by the war effort. Since the Roosevelt’s, however, there has not been a fully functioning White House Garden until the Obama’s came along.

Advocates of sustainable food have been pushing for a White House garden for decades.  In 1995, Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA and founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project, wrote a letter to President Clinton encouraging him to build a garden on the White House grounds in order to help create a demand for sustainable agriculture. “The present administration has the chance to invigorate public dialogue by turning our attention to how food must be at the center of our lives,” she says in her letter. “Talk about it; promote it as part of the schools curriculum; encourage the spread of farmers markets; and demonstrate it with organic gardens on the grounds of the White House and the Vice Presidential mansion.” While Clinton was initially supportive of a White House garden, ultimately, Hilary Clinton planted only a small rooftop garden that did not accomplish Waters’ goal.

Michael Pollan, a writer and activist who focuses on food and sustainability, wrote a letter to Barak Obama in 2008, right before he took office. “Farmer in Chief”, which was published in the New York Times, urges Obama to focus on food.  Pollan urges Obama to create a new victory garden movement, “this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population.” The movement must begin, he writes, with the First Family. A White House garden will create a powerful image – “the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community.” Kitchen Gardeners, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable local food systems, led the “Eat the View” campaign, creating a petition for a White House garden that attracted over 110,000 signatures.

In the spring of 2009, the campaign proved successful when Michelle Obama created a 1,100 square foot garden on the South Lawn. Mrs. Obama started the garden to feed her own family, but also as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to help solve the problem of childhood obesity. The campaign encourages community gardens as “a way to engage members of your community or congregation around healthy, local food.” Mrs. Obama also adds that gardens can serve as an educational tool.

Garden Layout (whitehouse.gov)

And the Obama’s have used the garden for just that purpose. The Bancroft Elementary School, a DC public school located less than three miles away from the White House has been involved in the White House garden from its inception. Fifty students from the Bancroft elementary school helped Mrs. Obama clear a section of lawn and plant the garden in March 2009. Since then, Obama has hosted groups of students at the garden where she speaks to them about eating healthily and sustainably and engages them in planting and harvesting in the garden. The video below is a speech that Mrs. Obama made to students from Bancroft in March, 2010, one year after the garden was started.

The garden, like all presidential actions, is not without controversy. The Obama’s decision to keep the garden entirely organic provoked a response from the Mid-America CropLife Association, who wrote a letter to Mrs. Obama calling for the use of “conventional agriculture” in the White House garden, particularly the use of “crop protection products” (i.e. pesticides). Still, the Obama’s have maintained the plan to keep their garden entirely organic.

October 5, 2011 garden harvest. Michelle Obama harvested vegetables with students from the Bancroft Elementary School (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Less than a month ago, students from the Bancroft Elementary School again joined Mrs. Obama in the garden for the third annual fall harvest. Once the hard work of the harvesting was over, the students, together with the White House chefs, prepared grilled vegetable pizza.

Peter Ganong, a former resident of Washington D.C. has walked by the White House and noticed the activity in the garden. “I was inspired to see that gardening and a connection with the earth and food was a central part of the image of this white house,” he said. And that is exactly the goal of the White House Kitchen Garden – to inspire the public to connect with their food and the environment.

Accounting for his Losses in Colorado: A Honey Farmer Looks to Neonicotinoids

According to Tom Theobald, a Boulder Colorado bee keeper, chlothianidin is causing the decline of bee colonies. How and when did the bees get poisoned?

“These neonicotinoids are huge.  This is the insecticidal equivalent of plutonium,” said Tom Theobald, in a phone interview on October 26, 2011.  In my last blog post, I asked whether chlothianidin was responsible for CCD.  To some, to Tom Theobald, there is no doubt.

Long before CCD became a national story in 2006, Tom Theobald had been experiencing unusual losses among his honey bee colonies.  As early as the winter of 1995, with the appearance of the varroa mites, the Colorado bee keeper’s colonies had suffered serious declines, their hives being abandoned, teeming with honey that other bees failed to forage.  The varroa mite was considered the culprit at the time.  As its impact diminished, the winter losses, however, continued to escalate.  This escalation coincided, in Theobald’s view, with the introduction of the pesticide Imidachloprid.

Imidacloprid, first registered for use in the US by the EPA in 1994 and banned in France  since 2004, in Germany and Italy since 2008 , is a neonicotinoid that systematically penetrates the plant and is used to control sucking and chewing insects.  It penetrates the insect’s nervous system, blocking its neural pathway that, in insects, is more abundant than in warm-blooded animals.  The insect that sucks on the treated crop will become paralysed and die.  Imidacloprid is in fact known to be highly toxic to bees.   In 2003, when its patent ran out, it was replaced by another neonicotinoid, chlothianidin.

On his Colorado honey farm, Tom Theobald set out like Sherlock Holmes to try to explore the mystery of his disappearing bees.   His colonies had ended the summer strong: “the brood nest was the size of a basketball.”  Yet somehow, by October, the brood nest had suffered a precipitous decline in size – “it had become the size of a softball.”  The colony of 30,000 bees had declined to 3,000.  Puzzled by this decline and given the absence of varroa mites, he figured that the queen must have either stopped laying, stopped laying viable brood, or that the larvae were dying.  This period in the fall, when the colony is producing the winter brood, is a crucial one: there must be a critical mass of bees to protect the colony, to serve as the outer layer, the “sacrificial blanket” as it were of the hive that keeps the dormant bees warm throughout the cold winter months.  With the break in the brood cycle, there was no winter layer and the colonies simply collapsed.

Bee colonies--Courtesy of Avalanche Looms/Flickr Creative Commons

Why this sudden arrest in procreative activity?  Theobald looked over to the surrounding corn fields.  The corn pollen contained the neonicotinoid chlothianidin known to compromise the fertility of the queen and the viability of the brood, as explained in the PAN pesticides Database: “Population-level effects on honeybees may occur even if a pesticide has low acute toxicity. For example, certain pesticides interfere with honeybee reproduction, ability to navigate, or temperature regulation, any of which can have an effect on long-term survival of honeybee colonies. The neonicotinoids, pyrethroids and keto-enol pesticides are some types of pesticides causing one or more of these effects.”

The bees, Theobald explained in his interview, will store pollen and not use it as long as there is fresh pollen available.  Thus the pesticide-laden corn pollen culled in the summer got “stored in the pantry” until the supply of fresh pollen ran out.  At that point, around October, the neonicotinoid of the stored pollen attacked the queen’s reproductive system. 

When the summer bees die, having worked themselves to death, winter bees normally replace them.  Now Theobald’s summer bees had died and there were no winter bees to take over and repopulate the colony.

Chlothianidin will enter its tenth year on the market and it has yet to meet the requirements of registration.  When chlothianidin was approved in 2003, there was no pressing insect scourge, Theobald points out, that required immediate approval of the pesticide.  What was running out was Bayer‘s, the manufacturing company’s, patent for Imidacloprid.  So today, as he says, “we are subjected to all this damage not to protect the world against an insect but to protect Bayer’s market share.”

"We want bees, not toxic chemicals"--Courtesy of Avaazorg/Flickr Creative Commons

Given the risks and the damages, is there then any advantage to the use of these neonicotinoids? No.   Not only is it killing the bees, according to Theobald, but it is poisoning the soil: “If you are a farmer and you get on this boat, what does your soil look like in five years?  You don’t have soil.  You have real estate.”  As chlothianidin has a half life of nineteen years, it takes over 100 years for the soil to purge itself of the chemical.  While the effect on the bees’ neural receptors is cumulative and irreversible, Theobald admonishes “it goes way beyond the bees.”

Water contamination due to hydrofracking in Pennsylvania

According to Environmental Protection Agency study, dangers to environmental and public health caused by hydrofracking wastewater are greater than previously expected

Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling Tower: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

While hydrofracking using the horizontal drilling method, is currently banned in New York, other states, including Pennsylvania, currently use this method to drill for natural gas. Hydrofracking can create major environmental and health problems. These known risks provide a justification to the fears of environmentalists in New York.

Scientists believe that natural gas is better for the environment than burning coal and oil, yet they fear that this new technique for natural gas drilling will harm public health and the environment.  During the process of of hydrofracking, millions of gallons of water laced with dangerous chemicals are injected into rock formations. This creates chemically infused wastewater, which environmentalists believe will eventually contaminate drinking water.

The New York Times uncovered confidential Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents, which show that the wastewater being brought to plants has a higher radioactivity than federal regulators believe is safe for these plants to treat effectively. These same documents also show that treatment plants, discharge tainted wastewater into rivers that supply drinking water.

Studies were also found by The New York Times that show that the radioactivity in waste discharged by treatment plants, will never fully dilute in waterways. This water is radioactive because many plants fail to test for radioactivity before discharging the wastewater. The EPA knows this is happening, but hasn’t done anything to fix this problem. With about 71,000 active gas wells, wastewater contamination is a major problem in Pennsylvania. Tests have shown, that the radioactivity in the discharged wastewater can be between hundreds or thousands of times the maximum allowed federal standard for drinking water.

Gas Wells in Colorado Photo Courtesy The New York Times article, "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers"

In 2008 and 2009, about half of the waste created by hydrofracking was taken to sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania. Additionally, some of the untreated wastewater has been sent to other states including New York and West Virginia to be treated. Due to the treatment plants’ inability to remove radioactive substances in wastewater before the water is discharged into rivers, which eventually flow to other states and can cause their water to become contaminated.

While the EPA has certainly been concerned about the water quality, they aren’t the only environmental group that’s worried. Experts in Pennsylvania believe that natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, but would like to see it harvested in a more environmentally friendly and healthier way. In a New York Times article titled, “Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers,” John H. Quigley, former Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conversation and Natural Resources, stated, “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

Small Bites, Big Goals

America’s first annual Food Day sparks a conversation to fuel a movement

On Monday, sustainable food was celebrated in over 2,000 events in 50 states, produced by grassroots organizers as part of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s first annual Food Day.

Food Day was an idea launched in April of 2011, when health, hunger, and sustainable agriculture groups came together to create a campaign to change how Americans eat and think. Modeled after Earth Day, Food Day set out to open dialogue and awareness, promoting healthy foods, supporting sustainable farms, challenging agribusiness subsidies, expanding access to food, and reforming factory farms to protect animals and the environment.

Michael F Jacobson, the executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, has expectations that this awareness will translate to action, saying “We want to solve the problems to America’s food system,” and then describing the challenges to face: “Diet-related diseases are contributing to several hundred thousand deaths a year, kids are bombarded with junk-food advertising, millions of people are on the brink of hunger, food is grown in a way that uses enormous amounts of energy and degrades the environment, farm policies shower large farmers with billions of dollars and give little support to sustainable agriculture, workers on farms and in slaughterhouses and packinghouses are often treated miserably.”

But Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Comittee defined the event more timidly than its organizers, avoiding explicitly defining the American foodsystem’s problems or providing specific plans for action when he said in a press release, “Food Day is designed to further knowledge, understanding, and dialogue about critical topics in food, agriculture, and nutrition—spanning the food chain from farm families to family tables”.

Food Day was launched to start a dialogue across the country about these issues, but has more political aims. As participants convened in farmers’ markets, schools, grocery stores, fairs, and homes, they were encouraged to send their congress representatives a message soliciting their support of the Eat Real Agenda. The message lays out values of human health, equal and wider access to fresh produce, supporting farm laborers, termination of wasteful farm subsidies, and fair treatment of humans, earth, and animals. But, like Harkin and Jacobson, still provides no concrete steps– no bills or policy proposals– to make these changes happen in government.
Food Day Events Across the Country, courtesy of Flickr

The spread of information and awareness must eventually be channeled into action if it is to meaningfully, structurally change American food. As Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest explains, “Government policies and consumer decisions are both extremely important.  Consumers can choose healthier foods produced in a sustainable way, but it’s hard.  We need government policies to improve the situation for everyone.”

Where will Food Day be next year, on its first birthday? Time will tell if the continued awareness, dialogue, and spread of information will turn into action. So far, as Michael Pollan points out , writing in The Nation, that there is a “marked split between the movement’s gains in the soft power of cultural influence and its comparative weakness in conventional political terms”. He emphasizes that, with patience and persistence, cultural influence does evolve into policy and power. Food activism and awareness is making important grassroots advances: making school gardens, urban farming ventures, and local policy initiatives, but Food Day has a long battle ahead.

This is not to say it won’t be done. Earth Day started as a grassroots conversation, and ultimately contributed to the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Administration. Food Day was an exciting beginning; and its celebration each year will remind eaters to keep talking about, keep chewing on, sustainable food, until enough Americans come to the table inspired to make real change.

Campaigning for Conflict-Free College Campuses

College students across the U.S. are taking a stance and asking their administrations to work toward building a conflict-free institution. Whether they face roadblocks or successes, students are continuing with their efforts to create the most profound change possible.

Large, international humanitarian and environmental crises can often be paralyzing. Upon reading about such a conflict, it can be easy to feel disconnected from a far-flung location ridden by chaos. Where to begin; what stance to take; who to communicate with on the matter. These can all be difficult issues to face. One tactic is to turn to a community you already feel a part of—a workplace, organization, religious institution, school, or family—to discuss the matter and decide on an educated course of action. An example of such communal action has begun to take root at college campuses across the United States and in parts of Canada.

Sixty-two American and Canadian colleges have already come out in support of conscious consumption of electronics. Conscious consumption refers to purchasing electronics from companies that do not buy products containing Congolese minerals from conflict mines. As campuses take action on this matter, support generally comes in one of three forms: a procurement policy, a shareholder resolution, or a statement of general support.

A procurement policy is the strongest level of commitment a university or college can take. This involves the passage of a resolution that states the institution will favor purchasing electronics that come from companies that do not purchase conflict minerals. A shareholder resolution would require the university to vote their shares in favor of any resolution—regarding conflict-minerals in the DRC—that arises at companies they hold stock in. The third option, a statement of general support, expresses the university’s support of conscious consumption and conflict-free electronics in general. Each of these three efforts also acts as an awareness tactic as well.

These three options all pressure electronics companies, whether directly or indirectly, to clean up their mineral supply chains and to only use conflict-free minerals in their products. That said, each of these commitments does hold some noncommittal component. The language of procurement policies remains somewhat vague, allowing universities to express their “intent” to purchase conflict-free products. The shareholder resolution is a somewhat indirect piece of action; it deflects the need to actually purchase conflict-free electronics on campus. A statement of general support, of course, is only committing to releasing a public statement and falls short of taking any action beyond that.

At the same time, each of these steps does build awareness, seek to decrease the purchasing of conflict-ridden electronics, and pressures electronics companies by showing a growing demand for conflict-free products. Students are seeing the publicity and impact of these efforts and are now taking it upon themselves to demand more if universities do not self-impose stricter conflict mineral strategies.

Alexandra Hellmuth, Student and Youth Coordinator for Enough Project’s Congo Campaign, works with college and high school students to develop conflict-free campaigns on their campuses. The Enough Project is a non-profit organization “dedicated to ending genocide and crimes against humanity, and preventing them from occurring in the future.” Hellmuth expressed in an interview that she believes the most influential way students can become involved in the cause of conflict minerals in the DRC is through the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI).

As stated on the Enough Project’s Congo campaign website, CFCI is a “national campaign to develop consumer advocacy for conflict-free electronics.” She clarified that the extent of these efforts never seeks to achieve Congolese divestment, but rather asks electronics companies to evaluate the legitimacy of mines. Hellmuth explains, “A main part of our campaign is that we don’t want companies to pull out of the Congo.” This would produce further chaos and economic distress in the DRC, which would work against the objectives of this campaign.

Stanford University’s chapter of STAND, “the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network” represents one of the leading college campus forces taking on the conflict-free campaign. Through Stanford STAND’s efforts working with administrators and Board of Trustee members, Stanford University became the first university in the world to alter its investment guidelines to help diminish its funding of the conflict minerals trade in the DRC. Through the club’s efforts, they achieved the passage of a proxy voting agreement, which is the same concept as a shareholder resolution, described above, except for that it does not take initiative to file these resolutions. Stanford STAND’s website describes the policy the university adopted: “The guideline states that the University will: ‘…vote in favor of well-written and reasonable shareholder resolutions that ask companies for reports on their policies and efforts regarding their avoidance of conflict minerals and conflict mineral derivatives.’” Even given this success, though, Stanford student and campus STAND co-president, Clementine Stip, stated in an interview that just because they have achieved this accomplishment does not mean they will back away from this issue; she insisted they must continue to perfect their rhetoric and stance as they now act as a role model for other campuses.

Students at Duke University provide another example of meaningful campus activism. Stefani Jones, Duke sophomore and student senator for athletics, services, and the environment, teamed up with a group of friends to spearhead these campus efforts. While interning for the Enough Project this past summer, Jones decided to bring the CFCI to her campus. In order to do so, she started a coalition of students that is now part of the Duke Partnership for Service, which acts as an “umbrella organization for student-led service organizations at Duke.” Jones explained the importance of establishing this coalition since there is not a STAND chapter at Duke. Her goal was to gain as much student support as possible: “We have been reaching out to different student groups… like human rights and ethics to…investment clubs to our environmental alliance.” Her goal was “to try meeting…all the parts of campus that have either a stake or an interest in stopping the conflict in Congo.”

Jones’ campus-wide support was reflected in the organization of the Eureka Symposium, run through Duke Partnership for Service, which attracted over 120 students. The symposium, which included a presentation by the Enough Project, sought to work with students to teach and develop effective mechanisms for social change.

Students gather at Duke University for the Eureka Symposium | Photo Courtesy of Stefani Jones

Despite the original strength of efforts at Duke—and the original enthusiasm of the administration—Duke advocacy did run into a roadblock. Once administrators discovered that many of their corporate sponsors were electronics companies, they feared jeopardizing their relationship with such companies and backed down from their position of support.

Jones shared her perspective on this setback and the importance of remedying the situation in the DRC, “These corporate interests aren’t as important as the fact of how severe this conflict is. We’ve had a hard time convincing administrators that it is something worth viewing as a serious issue.”

Jones ensured, however, that as she continues to work with fellow students to develop a procurement strategy for Duke, and to establish a dialogue with Board of Trustee members, that she would not stand down to the administration: “we’re not really going to take no for an answer.”

Each of the three campus action options work toward a solution to hold electronics companies responsible for their mineral sources. As discussed last week, this type of activism is just one component of the necessary efforts to address human rights violations being carried out by violent Congolese mine owners who exploit the environment. What is clear is that campus activism is taking root all across the United States and that students are tenacious in their efforts; they are not backing down, and they are fighting for a cause they deeply believe in.